To a militant patriot like Thomas Paine it was profoundly humiliating to recall that for ten years past Americans had professed themselves “humble and loyal subjects” and “dutiful children,” yielding to none in “admiration” for the “excellent British Constitution,” desiring only to live and die as free citizens under the protecting wing of the mother country. Recalling all this sickening sentimentalism, Mr. Paine uttered a loud and ringing BOSH! Let us clear our minds of cant, he said in effect, and ask ourselves what is the nature of government in general and of the famous British Constitution in particular. Like the Abbe Sieyes, Mr. Paine had completely mastered the science of government, which was in fact extremely simple. Men form societies, he said, to satisfy their wants, and then find that governments have to be established to restrain their wickedness; and therefore, since government is obviously a necessary evil, that government is best which is simplest.
Just consider then this “excellent British Constitution,” and say whether it is simple. On the contrary, it is the most complicated, irrational, and ridiculous contrivance ever devised as a government of enlightened men. Its admirers say that this complexity is a virtue, on account of the nice balance of powers between King, Lords, and Commons, which guarantees a kind of liberty through the resulting inertia of the whole. The Lords check the Commons and the Commons check the King. But how comes it that the King needs to be checked? Can he not be trusted? This is really the secret of the whole business–that Monarchy naturally tends to despotism; so that the complication of the British Constitution is a virtue only because its basic principle is false and vicious. If Americans still accept the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, well and good; if not, then in Heaven’s name let them cease to bow down in abject admiration of the British Constitution!
And in ceasing to admire the British Constitution, Americans should also, Thomas Paine thought, give up that other fatal error, the superstition that up to the present unhappy moment the colonies had derived great benefits from living under the protecting wing of the mother country. Protection! “We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering that her motive was interest not attachment; and that she did not protect us from our enemies ON OUR OWN ACCOUNT, but from her enemies ON HER OWN ACCOUNT, from those who have no quarrel with us on any other account, and who will always be our enemies ON THE SAME ACCOUNT.” An odd sort of protection that, which served only to entangle the colonies in the toils of European intrigues and rivalries, and to make enemies of those who would otherwise befriends! “Our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instructs us to renounce the alliance: because, any submission to, or dependence upon, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint.”
What foolishness then to seek reconciliation, even if it were possible! Reconciliation at this stage would be the ruin of America. If King George were indeed clever, he would eagerly repeal all the obnoxious acts and make every concession; for when the colonies had once become reconciled he could accomplish by “craft and subtlety, in the long run, what he cannot do by force and violence in the short one.” The colonies, having come to maturity, cannot always remain subject to tutelage; like the youth who has reached his majority, they must sooner or later go their own way. Why not now? Beware of reconciliation and of all those who advocate it, for they are either “interested men, who are not to be trusted, weak men who cannot see, prejudiced men who will not see, or a certain set of moderate men who think better of the European world than it deserves.”
Such arguments were indeed precisely suited to convince men that independence, so far from being an event in which they had become entangled by the fatal network of circumstance, was an event which they freely willed. “Read by almost every American, and recommended as a work replete with truth, against which none but the partial and prejudiced can form any objection, …it satisfied multitudes that it is their true interest immediately to cut the Gordian knot by which the…colonists have been bound to Great Britain, and to open their commerce, as an independent people, to all the nations of the world.” In April and May, after the Congress had opened the ports, the tide set strongly and irresistibly in the direction of the formal declaration. “Every post and every day rolls in upon us,” John Adams said, “Independence like a torrent.” It was on the 7th of June that Richard Henry Lee, in behalf of the Virginia delegation and in obedience to the instructions from the Virginia Convention, moved “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent State… ; that it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances; …and that a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
The “resolution respecting independency,” debated at length, was postponed till the 1st of July, when it was again brought up for consideration. It was still, on that day, opposed by many, chiefly by John Dickinson, who now said that he should not be against independence ultimately, but that he could not consent to it at the present moment because it would serve to divide rather than to unite the colonies. At the close of the debate on the 1st of July, there seemed little prospect of carrying the resolution by a unanimous vote. The Delaware deputies were evenly divided, the third member, Caesar Rodney, not being at the moment in Philadelphia; the Pennsylvania deputies were opposed to the resolution, three against two; while the New York and South Carolina deputies were not in a position to vote at all, having, as they said, no instructions. The final vote was therefore again postponed until the following day.
Which of the deputies slept this night is not known. But it is known that Caesar Rodney, hastily summoned, mounted his horse and rode post-haste to Philadelphia, arriving in time to cast the vote of Delaware in favor of independence; it is known that John Dickinson and Robert Morris remained away from Independence Hall, and that James Wilson changed his mind and voted with Franklin and Morton; and it is known that the South Carolina deputies came somehow to the conclusion, over night, that their instructions were after all sufficient. Thus it was that on July 2, 1776, twelve colonies voted that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” One week later, the New York deputies, having been properly instructed, cast the vote of their colony for the resolution also.
Meanwhile, a committee had been appointed to prepare a formal declaration, setting forth the circumstances and the motives which might justify them, in the judgment of mankind, in taking this momentous step. The committee had many meetings to discuss the matter, and, when the main points had been agreed upon, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were instructed to “draw them up in form, and clothe them in a proper dress.” Many years afterwards, in 1822, John Adams related, as accurately as he could, the conversation which took place when these two met to perform the task assigned them. “Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught. I said, ‘I will not.’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first–You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second–I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third–You can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.'” In some such manner as this it came about that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, no doubt doing, as he said, the best he could.
It is the judgment of posterity that Mr. Jefferson did very well–which was doubtless due partly to the fact that he could write, if not ten times better, at least better than John Adams. Yet the happy phrasing of a brief paragraph or two could scarcely By itself have won so much fame for the author; and perhaps much Of the success of this famous paper came from the circumstance That ten years of controversy over the question of political rights had forced Americans to abandon, step by step, the restricted ground of the positive and prescriptive rights of Englishmen and to take their stand on the broader ground of the natural and inherent rights of man. To have said, “We hold this truth to be self-evident: that all Englishmen are endowed by the British Constitution with the customary right of taxing themselves internally” would probably have made no great impression on the sophisticated European mind. It was Thomas Jefferson’s good fortune, in voicing the prevailing sentiment in America, to give classic expression to those fundamental principles of a political faith which was destined, in the course of a hundred years, to win the allegiance of the greater part of the western world.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It is to these principles–for a generation somewhat obscured, it must be confessed, by the Shining Sword and the Almighty Dollar, by the lengthening shadow of Imperialism and the soporific haze of Historic Rights and the Survival of the Fittest–it is to these principles, these “glittering generalities,” that the minds of men are turning again in this day of desolation as a refuge from the cult of efficiency and from faith in “that which is just by the judgment of experience.”
The Eve of the Revolution
by Carl Lotus Bekcer
The Declaration of Independence:
A Study in the History of Political Ideas
by Carl Lotus Becker
Beginnings of the American People
by Carl Lotus Becker